Hagoon – The Picture-Perfect Valley

Hagoon – The Picture-Perfect Valley

A personal travel tale by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee.

Connect with Reetwika on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee

 

After having a homely breakfast, the two of us geared up for a road trip to Hagoon and Chandanwadi. Booked a Maruti EECO tourist car through our hotel reception who agreed us to offer sightseeing to both the angelic valleys located between the Inner and Trans Himalayan Ranges – Pir Panjal and Zanskar. We were surprised when the taxi agreed to charge the standard Government rate whereas from previous experiences ours ears got used to their obvious tantrums. First time found such a peaceful public transport management anywhere in Kashmir. Definitely, the day started unexpectedly in a good note.

 

On way to Hagoon 

 

Archaeological excavations have confirmed human inhabitation in this belt since Neolithic age. The region had been reigned by Turks and Mughals since 15th Century AD. Indo-Turkish Army General Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat loved the ambiance of these vast meadows and named it Hagoon. Later during British Raj, it was further renamed to Hagan Valley.

 

Picturesque drive to Hagoon

Another notable ruler of this region was Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin – one of the greatest Kashmiri rulers of all times who governed the valley for more than four decades. His efforts towards promoting peace and harmony amongst Kashmir’s multicultural society was noteworthy.

 

Driving with a herd of sheep

 

View of Hagoon from top

 

Our driver introduced himself as Altaf, an ardent admirer of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din. From him we came to know that it was under Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din a social and cultural consciousness of Kashmiri inhabitants called ‘Kashmiriyat’ was established and righteously followed.

 

Finding us interested in the topic, Altaf took a proactive initiative of planning the day trip. He urged us to touch Hagoon first which in a way also falls enroute to Chandanwadi. The height of Hagoon is approximately 7900 feet. His logic was that Hagoon will acclimatize us before we take the high-altitude drive. It sounded logical, so we did not confront his proposal.

 

Glimpse of Hagoon

 

Hagoon alias Hagan Valley is a lush green grassland full of dense vegetation (now fenced like a hill park) at a kissing distance from the gurgling waters of Lidder, around 15 kilometres uphill from Pahalgam towards northeast. The road conditions were moderately good, and it took us around an hour to reach the entrance of Hagoon. Giving us 30 minutes visiting time at the spot, Altaf dropped us at the gate and went to park the car.

 

Hagoon entrance and adjoining car parking area

 

A walk inside the valley

 

As soon as we alighted from the taxi, a group of so-called guides swarmed around us. Thanks to our driver who alarmed us about it much before. We smartly walked inside the park following his direction. Above the main gate there was a huge hoarding where ‘Betaab Valley’ was written in bold as the name of the park. Now why the name ‘Betaab’? Well, the film shoots of Sunny Deol-Amrita Singh starrer 1983 blockbuster ‘Betaab’ was done here and hence the name. It was so disappointing to accept the Bollywood style naming of such a historic place as nowhere we could find the original name Hagoon or Hagan Valley written anymore. Innumerable other superhit movies were also shot here earlier like Aarzoo, Kashmir Ki Kali, Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila, Satte Pe Satta etc, still why Betaab was the decider is difficult to deduce.

 

Hagoon alias Betaab Valley

 

Whatever it is, the green splash of land is wonderfully maintained with superb scenic beauty all around. The waters of the river here is believed to have divine power and thus many of the natives still drink it without filtering. The adjacent forests comprise mostly of walnut, almond, saffron, willow, deodar, birch and pine trees.

 

Hagoon surroundings

 

The view of snow-capped mountains, Pir Panjal and Zanskar glaciers, colourful birds, vibrant flower beds, superfluous Lidder, ice cold streams bubbling beneath the frozen glaciers, an antique wooden footbridge, old-fashioned Kashmiri wooden benches – such a paradisiacal ambiance in totality. The panoramic vista makes it a must go place in Pahalgam circuit.

 

Wooden foot bridge

 

View of Zanskar and Pir Panjal peaks

 

Our thirty minutes were about to be over in a while. Though unwillingly, we had to hurry back as our high hill drive to Chandanwadi was awaiting next.

 

 

Aru – A Diorama of Tranquillity

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Have you heard of reclining horse? Well, Aru can bet a challenge to the age-old notion that a horse never sits until its last breath. We even met a sleeping horse!! Sounds unbelievable? Well, that’s the divinity of this splash of paradise on earth.

 

Sleeping horses of Aru

 

Many of us have been to Kashmir for tourism, nature photography, film shoots, pilgrimage, romantic getaways, mountaineering, bio tours, adventure sports and river rafting. But definitely Aru Valley does not fall in the most commonly visited hotspot list. Some important treks do originate from here, but believe me, it is much more than that. Serenity, tranquility, heavenliness – would sound synonymous to Aru once you land up at this pristine meadow.

 

Glimpses of Aru Valley 

 

This May to beat the summer heats, we had planned an offbeat Kashmir tour, visiting some of the off-the-wall tourist destinations in the Trans Himalayan circuit. Aru was our first stopover. Located at a road distance of around 12 kilometers from Pahalgam, Aru is a picturesque valley in the lap of Mt. Kolahoi (the highest peak in this part), with a visibility of more than a kilometer during summer and spring time. The elevation ranges approximately from 8000 to 12,000 feet above sea level and houses innumerable endangered biodiversity, flora and fauna. Though during winter months it remains covered in snow, it is relatively soothing round the year with an average temperature of around 11 to 15 degree Celsius. Surrounded by deodar, birch, pine and other alpines, Aru offers a mystic green beauty amidst snow.

 

Pahalgam t o Aru

 

Hiring horses from Pahalgam taxi stand

 

Reaching Pahalgam was not very difficult by road. After checking in at one of the mall road hotels, we marched for the mesmerizing horse ride of 12 kilometers. Private taxis were available from the Pahalgam taxi stand, but we were in a mood of expedition. We hired two strong ponies accompanied by three young men (supposedly our guides) for the hike.

 

Aru Trek on Horse Back

 

They took us through a forested shortcut, passing by a broken footbridge over the foaming Lidder. We took a fifteen minutes break beside the river, opened our thermos flask and relished the moments with a cup of coffee. Ever since we halted, the snow melted stream was beckoning me for a chill. Its cold splashes soothed my tired feet like natural healer.

 

Fallen footbridge on way

Break beside Lidder River

 

After roughly a 5 kilometer ride through the woods, we arrived at the motor road and followed it until Aru. On way, we came across a flock of sheep with the Gaddis herding them from behind. The view of snow caps in front and riding slowly with the cattle flock was such a fascinating experience!

 

Following flock of sheep with Gaddis

 

Hitting main road after a forested short cut

 

It took us almost half a day to reach Aru valley, taking intermediate breaks on way. We made our way through a narrow hillside road, closely resembling a green serpent, through the dense conifers, Kashmiri villages, mountain streams and finally a pitch road which ended at the grasslands of Aru – all the way keeping Lidder River on our left. The gurgling sound of the stream, whistling cedars tuned with horse neighs created a mystic charm altogether.

 

Melting glaciers on way

 

Reaching Aru Valley

 

 

Aru is one of the smallest hamlets in the Kashmir valley located in Anantnag District of Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Circumscribed by appealing snow peaks and lakes, its scenic grasslands offer a splendid view of the Himalayas. Mt. Kolahoi can be clearly seen on a cloudless morning. The trek of Kolahoi Glacier (the largest glacier in Kashmir Valley) starts right from here. Aru’s Lidderwat also serves as the base camp of Tarsar-Marsar hike and Vishansar-Kishansar trek, twin lakes at an altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level.

 

Landscape of the grasslands of Aru

 

We reached there by 12 noon. The village lies on the left bank of Aru River, a tributary of Lidder. Lush green meadows surrounded by glittering snow covered mountains on all sides, sparsely located thatched roof huts with horses grazing on the natural carpet – that’s what describes Aru in one sentence. Luckily it was a bright sunny morning, temperature somewhere around 12 degrees. Humidity was relatively low as per our horse guide which brightened the nature further. While taking random snaps, noticed a huge talking crowd in front of Fimi Hotel. We assumed, the mob must be circling some celebrity, but did not comprehend the exact topic of discussion though.

 

Mysterious Mas Mobbing in Aru

 

Quite tired after a long horse trek, we thought of taking a lunch break at one of those aboriginal shacks. Nowadays, a handful of high-altitude cottages have also come up to offer guests a pleasant stay. However, keeping in mind the geographical gorgeousness of the place, any artificial luxury will fall short.

 

Lunch break at Aru’s roadside shack

 

While we were waiting for our food to get served, a strange thing happened with us. The person whom we assumed to be a celeb, was passing by the shack. As he noticed us taking his snaps, he entered the shop and approached us with a smile. Though we could not recognize him by face, but from the excited crowd trailing him it was not difficult to gauge his honcho status in Aru.

 

Mass mobbing following us

 

A ponywala introduced him as one of the local millionaires who recently joined politics. But appearance wise, he can any day throw a strong competition to our super-hot Bollywood stars. For the next fifteen minutes, we had a cordial conversation with him regarding the kind of hospitality, natural beauty and ambiance of Aru. While leaving, he warmly requested us to encourage our statesmen to pay more visits to this green valley which will help creating better employment for the locales.

 

Walk around the valley

 

After a decent meal, we took a walk around the valley, clicked handful of lifetime photographs and enjoyed selfies with the sleeping horses before riding back.

 

Valley view

 

Mt. Kolahoi peak as seen from Aru

 

Having narrated the spectacular diorama of Aru, only aspect which seemed somewhat unmatching at the backdrop of nature’s bounty was the forceful attitude of local horsemen who, to certain extent, force tourists to take their horse rides from the designated Aru tourist spot to different nearby trekking routes. The Government approved rate chart, though defined and clearly displayed on board, are hardly followed on folly grounds like low visitor footfalls, old rate chart not updated, heavy weight of travelers, recent inflation, poor horse owner, unfed horses etc.

 

 

To be brutally honest, the horse ride from Pahalgam to Aru, 12 kilometres upstream along Lidder through the Overa Biosphere Reserve was more alluring than the destination itself. The name of our horse was Tumba, not sure what it means in Kashmiri language, but it was a sweet company beyond doubt. Her gentle tail scrubs, wild body odour and love kicks added an adventurous touch to our Aru expedition. Though we are not adventure sports buff, but Aru can be a wonderful host for skiing, heliskiing, paragliding and river rafting buffs. For leisure travelers, it can contest for one of the best nature camp, trout fishing and valley trotting centres.

 

Back to our hotel in Pahalgam

 

By evening, we were back to our hotel in Pahalgam. Having light dinner with Tandoori Roti and Mixed Veg, I jumped into the depth of my dreams under a cozy woolen blanket – getting ready to proceed to our next destination Hagoon in the morning.

Kagyu Thek Chen Ling Monastery of Lava

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

This Bengali New Year, we planned a trip to Lava – a charming hill station in the Eastern belt of Greater Himalayas, around 38 kilometres from Kalimpong. It serves as the gateway to Neora Valley National Park, the oldest bio-reserve of India. Though height of Lava is only 7200 feet, yet its climate has a frosty touch round the year. Packing woollen mittens on a midsummer day, we headed to our next trip.

 

Glimpse of Lava from Kagyu Thek Chen Ling Monastery

 

Located at a distance of 100 odd kilometres from New Jalpaiguri, it took us almost 5 and half hours by road to reach Lava including short breaks on way. Usually it’s a 4 hours’ drive but due to some road closures near Gorubathan, we had to take a longer route via Mangpoo.

 

Road trip to Lava via Mangpoo

 

Due to a landslide at Kalijhora, the road had become even narrower fleeting one way traffic at a time. Untimely rains spoiled it all. Road clearance work was in progress but we lost significant time there. Nevertheless, our driver maintained the highest possible gear till 9th Mile where we took our first break. Time was around 2pm. Being a regular traveller in this circuit, we now prefer to stop at unconventional joints to avoid tourist rush.

 

Quick break near 9th Mile

 

Passing through Kalimpong 

 

Another attraction of 9th Mile is an unglamorous lollypop distributor. There’s a small shop near the bus stop which in my views, produces Kalimpong’s best lollypop. They often invite me to visit their main factory which is somewhere down the same hill. But due to time constraints, I could not make it possible yet. Promising every time, next time sure, we leave with a bag of lollypops. The old vendor only smiles.

Kalimpong special Lollypop*

(*Image sourced from internet)

Many do not know there is an indigenous variety of soft candy on a stick, locally famous as lollypop, is produced in this part of north Bengal. It is traditionally made of dense yak milk and natural sweeteners. Both the taste and aroma of this so called lollypop are very unique and I never found anything similar anywhere else in India or abroad so far. Kalimpong may now ponder to claim a Geographical Indication for its lollypop if not done already.

 

Way to Lava from 9th Mile

 

From 9th Mile, we took the road towards Lava. We reached in one and half hours. The April weather was pretty cold, seemingly, it may duly receive snow in winter. The greenery also changed with the change in meteorological conditions and altitude. The forested stretch of Lava comprised of Rhododendron, Cardamom, Himalayan Thysanolaena grass (phool jhadu), Sal, Oak, Himalayan bamboo, variety of wild Orchids and Ferns, Pine, Cedars, Fir, Birch and endangered animal species, thus often referred as Dhupi (colloquial word meaning ‘dense leafy forest’).

 

Jungle drive through Neora Valley forested stretch

 

There is nothing much in the Lava town except an ancient Buddhist monastery, a small mall road market, Samybiong Tea Estate, Neora valley Interpretation Centre and a Clock Tower surrounded by dense Himalayan forest on all sides. Due to its strategic geographical placement it serves as a very important juncture for the tourists.

 

Momo break at the fringes of Neora Valley forest

 

By the time we reached Lava, sun had already started descending. The central Clock Tower needle indicated half past three. Half the market was closed due to afternoon time. A decent halt at Lava Bazaar was a must have as our stomachs were badly craving for food. Therefore, we decided to break for lunch first and then proceed to hotel check-in.

 

Road drive to Lava

 

There were only a handful of restaurants around and luckily one of them was open – Hotel Geetanjali. Basically a budget lodge but the signboard read that it also serves authentic Bengali food. Thus we decided to put up for a night here. With an octogenarian Brahmin widow accompanying us in the daring road journey, nothing could have been a better stopover. The manager himself came along as we alighted in front of the gate. The restaurant was closing by then when we arrived but it was very cordial of him to offer us food. A Bengali himself, the elderly manager helped us to settle down after the dusty long drive, carefully took down our rice meal order and offered to take rest in his cabin if needed. That was so kind of him.

 

Reaching Lava

 

Lava Bazaar

 

Since he had to prepare food afresh, the waiting time would be more than usual. So, he advised us to visit the Lava Kagyu Thek Chen Ling Monastery on opposite side of the road in the meantime. With no snub, we accepted his proposal at once. Leaving the senior citizens in his custody, we carried on.

 

It was hardly fifty steps away from the hotel on the fringe of Neora Valley National Park. The road through the Lava marketplace was very steep for a walk, falling sharply down towards the monastery side. The closed market facilitated an easier walk. The weather being cloudy, we thoroughly enjoyed the misty trail.

 

Steep Roads around Lava Marketplace

 

Misty trail to Lava Monastery

 

The main entrance was brightly painted in blue and decorated with traditional Buddhist frescoes. It is located on top of a small hill inside the gate. We had to constantly ascend for fifteen minutes to reach the top. It was such a spiritual bliss. A bright red building richly decorated with golden porticoes and curved facades on all sides. The colourful wall paintings evident even through the clouds soothed our eyes.

 

Afternoon Walk to Lava Monastery

 

Biodiversity at Lava

 

The evening prayer preparations had already started by then. Small children, monks and resident students all dressed in maroon attires were busy gathering at the prayer hall. The ghee lamp inside was burning with its solemn divinity. Spending a short span, we started walking back. We really yearned to spend more time at this holy paradise but time was chasing us hard.

 

Trek to Monastery

 

 

Prayer Hall

 

Residential building of the monks

 

Trek back to hotel

 

Lunch was ready by the time we came back – hot and fresh. Sumptuous in true sense! We decided to retire for the day and prepare for our onward destination next day.

 

 Sunset at Lava

 

An Attic Stay in Kolbong Forest of Kolakham

A personal travel blog by Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Kolakham is a virgin hill station with an average altitude of 6500 feet above sea level, inside Neora valley National Park on the foothills of Eastern Himalayas. We got to know about the place from a travel magazine. The captivating photographs were imperative to plan our next trip to Kolakham.

 

 

Last summer we spent a weekend there, spending splendid moments in the lap of Kolbong forest, the oldest Reserve Forest of the country rich in biodiversity, flora and fauna. Located at a distance of around 125 kilometres from Siliguri, it took us almost 7 and half hours by road to reach Kolakham due to unprecedented delays enroute.

 

This time we were travelling in a family of four and preferred to book a decent hatchback through a tour operator near Siliguri bus stop. But when we communicated our destination to the driver he immediately refused to accept the duty. As per him, a 4*4 SUV was the only possible four-wheeler to risk the last seven kilometre jungle drive through the Kolbong range of Neora Valley National Park. Needless to say, from the journey time itself, one may guess the road conditions in this route. In addition, the weather was very cloudy since previous night. It was mid-June, not an ideal season for this circuit of course and the possibility of rains made it even worse.

 

Kalimpong Mall Road

 

After a hassled start, we finally commenced our journey from Darjeeling More taxi stand at quarter past ten in the morning. Due to a landslide near Kalimpong, the road had become extremely narrow passing single way traffic at a time. From the district town, we took the route of Algarah towards Kolakham.

 

Algarah to Kolakham road trip

 

The road conditions for next 30 kilometres were satisfactory to cover in one and half hours. Kolakham was just 7 kilometres from here but the drive was the most difficult of all. We were at the entrance of Neora Valley National Park and Kolakham village is located within the verdant forest. As per our driver, though it’s just a few kilometres, it would take at least an hour to reach our hotel. There was no proper motorway inside the Kolbong forest. Only loose boulders are being laid for cars to traverse. Also, we were struggling against time because the road is not advisable for night drives. Not only natural risk, there could be wildlife attacks as well.

 

Entry gate of Kolbong Range – Neora Valley National Park

 

The network connectivity of Kolakham is usually poor and it got proved when we failed to contact our hotel in any way. We kept trying multiple times as I badly wanted to check if lunch could be arranged so late. On the other hand, a break was a must have so as to ease our driver for the remaining strenuous stretch. Therefore, we decided to have our lunch and then proceed for the final drive with full energy.

 

Way through the forest

 

It was already 5pm, high time to complete the road trip – the toughest drive ahead. Since there are no shops or ATM at Kolakham, we parcelled two big bottles of mineral water and dispensed emergency cash from the market. Keeping the monastery on our left, we took the road entering straight into the Neora Valley National Park. Within five minutes, the road disappeared and what we were left with were only boulders and thick forest all around – evidently we had entered the Kolbong range. It was going to be a natural blend of forest safari. Morning rains had made it so slippery that even an experienced hand was also missing a few times. The skidding sound of the wheel and our driver’s reactions made the difficulty too evident.

 

 

 

Due to the tall trees and unusual density at this part of Neora Valley forest, dusk light could hardly pierce through the foliage. The only source of light was the headlight. Now we could realize why the driver was so frustrated with our late start. Nocturnal tryst with wildlife wasn’t unforeseen. Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, Malayan Giant Squirrel, Black Bear, Musk Deer, Himalayan Monal etc are common residents of Kolbong range.

 

We did notice some movements behind the bushes and a dark fluffy bird incidentally crossed the road. Its speed was so high we could not see clearly what it was, probably Monal. Also the visibility was very poor. Nothing much could be seen against the headlight other than the rocky boulders.

 

 

At a distance, we could also hear the sound of an unknown animal, might be a barking deer’s call. It is said, the leader of any barking deer horde gives a loud call when it senses any carnivore around. My husband also reminded, a few years back even traces of Royal Bengal Tiger were also evidenced by the forest department. Sweats perspired even in the prevailing chills. As I pulled up the glass window, others too followed my action.

 

 

For the next thirty minutes, with complete stillness all of us were silently counting seconds as the motor vehicle slowly made its way through the woods. Undoubtedly, the natural sound mix of whistling cedars, wild cricket, chirping birds coupled with the motor noise created a mystic milieu. The perfect set to shoot a dark horror film.

 

Our hotel – Kolakham Retreat

 

‘Kolakham Retreat’ was the name of the hotel where we had booked our stay via Spring Vale Resorts group. It had become totally dark when we reached. Quarter past six here was as good as dinner time. It was not a proper hotel of course, neither a tree house. Small attic style wooden cottages facing north and a double storey concrete building – that’s all. We did not find any resort staffs as such. A Nepali family residing at the ground floor of the building took care of our needs during the stay. The Kolakham village is inhabited by sixty odd Nepali families of Rai origin and the caretakers too might belong to the same fraternity.

Attic style wooden cottages

 

As we alighted from the SUV, a mid-aged lady showed the way to our room K-7. We had booked the deluxe four bedded family room which was on the first floor. Luckily there was electricity when we arrived. Generally after sunset, there are instances of long power cuts in Kolbong forest. Chilly winds, forest stay, and dusty long drive – the combination demanded a round of hot tea and yummy munchies. Thankfully, the Nepali lady did not let us down. She agreed to serve the snacks immediately.

 

Our room K-7

 

We had to take a flight of steps to go to our room. Since it was double sized deluxe accommodation, there was only one room on first floor. Others were in cottages down below the slope. The backside of our building was open forest and to our sheer wonder there were no protections as such. The staircase was open on all sides with only a roof to prevent dews. Encountering a leopard or bear at night would not be absurd as the stairs might provide them a comfortable shade. The very ecstasy of adventure thrilled us, though not the seniors in family.

 

Night fall at Kolakham

 

Nestled amidst dense Neora Valley Kolbong Range at night was in itself a very exhilarating experience. The complimentary unpredictability made it more euphoric. The room was quite big with two double beds in a row. The attached toilet was clean. The overall quality was pretty average, more of a budget stay at the price of luxury – though quite justified at such a remote corner. The best part of the apartment was its open balcony. They said it faces north, so in the morning, if the clouds mercy us we would be able to see the snow caps right from our room.

 

After finishing tea, we had just reclined a bit when a loud knock on the door frightened us all. The slam continued without a pause and the strokes went harder as we took time to respond. My husband called out twice but his voice fainted behind the bangs. Any emergency? A dacoit attack? A ghost? Or some wild animal? Why banging so abnormally? Will it break the door? Thousand questions fizzed on our eyes. A weak door lock was the total protection. My husband was preparing to give a fight if the door breaks.

 

As we took time to open the door eyeing each other, a female voice came from downstairs, probably from the balcony side. I rushed out to check. It was the caretaker’s wife calling us at the top of her voice. Could not imagine such a frightening situation will be the outcome of a hilarious reason. She wanted to know if we were ready for dinner and to ask that she had sent one of her family members upstairs to knock us. An old dwarf, probably deaf too, was on the other side of the door.

 

The mysterious old dwarf

 

Dinner was served by 8pm and the village appeared dead by nine. Scarcely any traces of light could be seen, except a couple on the opposite hills. Chilly clouds poked us through the thin cracks on glass windows and wooden walls. A snoring sleep under double blankets was beckoning.

 

Birds of Kolakham

 

 

My eyes opened at the chirping of birds, a golden gleam of sunlight was touching my feet. Time was six in the morning. Had such a relaxing sleep after very long time. City hassles have killed our solace so much that barely any day begins without an alarm now.

 

Peeping through the open balcony

 

Opening the balcony door, I peeped outside. Oh what a fresh morning it was! The peaks were unfortunately not visible but the freshness of the air cleansed all fatigue. That was exactly the refreshment my heart was craving for.

 

Morning view of Kolbong Forest and Kolakham from room

 

There were a beautiful natural spring nearby popularly known as Changey Falls but there was no motorable road to reach by car. The only option was jungle hike of 5 kilometres. Keeping the family construct in mind, it was definitely not suitable for this time. But we all took a stroll around the untainted forest of Kolakham. The glimpse of Neora River from a natural view point was entrancing. Apart from our hotel, there were few more in vicinity, however the count of tourists seemed very less. Most of the lodges were of homestay type except ours.

 

Jungle hike in Kolbong

 

Next day was our check out. A leisure struck weekend detoxed our mundane weariness of metro life as we felt fully rejuvenated for the comeback. Mighty Himalayas did not disappoint us. On the third day, a mesmerizing view of the snow peaks completed our Kolakham stay. Mt. Kabru South & North, Kabru Dome, Talung, Kanchenjunga East & West and Pandim could be seen clearly.

 

View of snow peaks from our balcony

 

Kolakham, as they say, is truly an exemplary destination to experience wilderness amidst alpine beauty from a sheer proximity. A cloudless sky overlooking the evergreen valleys, coniferous forest, exotic wildlife and snow glaciers make it a perfect hotspot for nature lovers, star gazers, birdwatchers and adventure seekers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Night with the Ghosts of Morgan House

A personal travel blog by Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

‘Morgan House’ is quite recognized amongst Indian tourists as one of the most haunted rest houses from British era. Built on black granite stone with costly wooden interiors, it is now a Government owned bungalow located atop the Durpindara hill near Kalimpong. The main town is around three kilometres from here, mostly surrounded by cantonment area on three sides and a landscaped garden facing the Himalayas in north.

 

 

Glimpse of Morgan House

 

It is often said that in the first floor room no 103 of Morgan House, lodgers come across eerie happenstances with a womanly spirit, supposedly that of Lady Morgan’s who was found dead under mysterious conditions in the same room a century ago. And the very legend thrilled us to book the same room for a night out.

 

Yes you read it correct – this year we planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary at this haunted British bungalow in the landlady’s favourite bedroom.

 

Drive from Bagdogra to Morgan House via Teesta Bazar

 

 

It took us around 3.5 hours (around 80 kilometres) to reach from Bagdogra including a quick momo break at Teesta Bazar. We preferred to hire a direct drop than to break at Kalimpong town and again hunt for a private taxi. It did cost us more but worth the additional bucks.

 

Momo Break at Teesta Bazar

 

At present Morgan House is managed by WB tourism department and our room was booked through their online reservation system. Earlier it was known as Singamari Tourist Lodge, later renamed to Morgan House in memory of the well-off British couple post a series of name changes.

 

Way to 9th Mile

 

After crossing 9th Mile, we reached Kalimpong town. From the central bus stand, we took the uphill road towards Chandraloke. Upon reaching the entrance, we followed the driveway to Reception.

 

Main Entrance

 

Front side of Morgan House

 

A beautiful lady of mid thirtees greeted us inside. The overall staff behaviour did not appeal us but the atmosphere filled our heart with immediate solitude and that perhaps justifies its immense popularity in cine world.

 

Key to “haunted” Room No 103 of Morgan House

 

Inside view of Lady Morgan’s “haunted” room (presently Room No 103)

 

There are a total of seven rooms rented out to tourists. I was very excited to get into our room – No 103, the room where Lady Morgan’s corpse was discovered under utterly cryptic circumstances during 1940s. A beautifully planned apartment in first floor by the grand wooden staircase, a narrow hanging balcony clad with ivy and wisterias, inside there’s an ancient fireplace towards southern wall, stone chimneys on top, facing the backside garden in west, large iron windows on the remaining walls – all what defines Lady Morgan’s haunted bedroom, alias today’s room no 103 of Morgan House. The maintenance did not appear great, but the heritage aspect compensated for all the amenity centric shortcomings.

 

Grand wooden staircase in front of Lady Morgan’s mysterious room

 

Hanging balcony clad with ivy and stone chimneys on top

 

Backside Garden

 

We were utterly hungry after a strenuous journey and hence despite the spooky feeling, an immediate meal was the need of the hour. After a gastronomic feat, we thought of taking a walk around the building.

 

Main exit of Morgan House

 

 

We could figure out three exit points – one opens to the main road through which we had drove in, the other one was just diagonally opposite towards the cantonment side and the third one led us to a series of newly built cottages after a ten minute shadowy walk through the pine forest.

 

Walk through the mysterious pine woods

 

The walk was indeed enjoyable adding a mystic touch but we were utterly disappointed at its unexpected culmination. Needless to say, we were expecting to end up losing our way amidst the greens but the modern concrete constructions spoiled the prevailing obscurity. Later from the security guard got to know that years ago it used to be a private retreat of the queen of Bhutan, but after India’s independence, the property was handed over to the state government for renovation and since then WB tourism department has been supervising it. Those rooms can also be booked online through the same website as Morgan House.

 

Renovated residence of Queen of Bhutan on the other side of the walk

 

Opposite to the main entrance, there is an army golf course, as per the plaque it is identified as the most scenic golf course of the country inaugurated in the year of 1973 at a height of 4400 feet above sea level.

 

Country’s most scenic golf course opposite Morgan House

 

The idea of constructing this quaint golf bed was conceived by Major General Dalbir Singh and Lieutenant Colonel CF Hamilton. The course spreads across 3652 yards with 64 pars and nine holes (twelve greens). Though entry is banned for civilians, tourists can take a break at the adjoining Watershed View Point which also offers an attached south Indian pure vegetarian canteen. With a cup of filter coffee we relished the surreal beauty with occasional glimpses of Kalimpong town, Relli valley, Labha monastery, Kapher and Deolo hills in different directions.

 

Way to Kalimpong Environmental Park and Training Area

 

A minute’s walk from this view point lays the Kalimpong Environmental Park and Training Area of the army. Designated by a big arched gate, it also serves as a picturesque view point. Beyond it, the road is closed for outsiders. By the time we came back to Morgan House it was 3pm.

 

Way back to Morgan House

 

The view of the stone chimneys from the garden side at the backdrop of setting sun was brilliant. We could hear an unknown bird’s call coming from a distance. The gorgeous lawn chairs beckoned us for another round of hot beverage. Relishing a cup of steaming Darjeeling tea, we waited for the sunset and welcome the lady ghost.

 

Morgan House at dusk

 

Garden Chairs beckoned us for a cup of Darjeeling tea

 

The orange radiance of dusk reflected through the glass panes of Lady Morgan’s library, now converted to a guest lounge. It was in the ground floor right beside the reception. Before calling it a day, we thought of spending a few moments and no regret for the decision made.

 

Lady Morgan’s Library

 

It was so beautifully maintained – the stone charcoal fireplace, bookshelves, reading table with recliner (all modern furniture though), antique lampshades, chandelier, glass paned metal windows, assorted mix of old and new books – overall a classy place indeed. It was right here the affluent British couple used to throw expensive parties to their friends. However, I could not find Lady Morgan’s favourite piano anywhere, must admit I was really longing to see it around. Anyway, we could well imagine the Morgan couple’s romantic taste from their very artistic creations which withstood the testament of ages.

 

Stone charcoal fireplace

 

Gigantic glass windows of the library

 

Antique Chandelier

 

One of the walls bore the celebrity guest testimonials framed in wooden mounts and the list includes big shots from Bollywood and Tollywood like Utpal Dutta, Nargis Sunil Dutt, Om Prakash, Kishore Kumar Amit Kumar and Leena Chandravarkar. We could not stop nosing into the one signed by Uttam Kumar and Supriya Devi who stayed here for a night on 29th November 1976.

 

Testimonials by celebrity guests of Morgan House

 

Just above this library was Mr. Morgan’s living room and beside that was his lady’s bedroom. Spending over an hour, we headed towards the room upstairs. Time will be close to 6pm. I was a step ahead of my husband. While climbing up the wooden stairs, both of us could clearly hear the tapping sound of a pencil heeled shoe coming from just a floor above us – finding nothing unnatural, we kept ascending. Doubts stumped when I did not find anyone in the wooden corridor above. I immediately looked down in surprise and it didn’t surpass my husband’s eye.

 

Climbing up the grand wooden staircase

 

Where did the sound vanish? I was just halfway down the stairs and it did not take me more than two minutes to reach the first floor. Also, from the apparent circumstances, it did not seem that any of the other room doors were open just a while ago. In majority of the rooms, lights were off – either the guests were out or they were unoccupied. So, where did the lady go? Was she Lady Morgan? Oh, did we miss her by a whisker?

 

 

Unlike the season, surrounding climatic conditions forced us to get a room heater to beat the untimely cold. Clouds were forming and so chances of mountain sighting in the morning were getting bleak. Busy in discussing our day’s experiences so far, I opened my laptop to look for the haunted story of Morgan House. My husband preferred to surf through his favourite sports channels than to accompany me in my search. Thanks to the Wi-Fi connection, I landed up on quite a few pages where her spiritual existence is cited but no one could tell me the exact story of the couple’s sudden disappearance.

 

 

And then there was a massive power cut. Complete darkness outside. The white glare of my laptop screen was the only spoiler. As we looked outside the windows, the well-lit garden was already engulfed by the clouds. There was not a drop of light in the vicinity. Far away, through the dense pines on the opposite hill, few dim lights could be seen. What a mystic ambiance!

 

In today’s technology dominated world, couples hardly get such an undisturbed spell of time to enjoy their togetherness. Closing the artificial source of light, we slowly walked towards the bed, reclined our bodies, slipped into the blanket and started gossiping. He was on my left. I was reclining towards window side of the bed, both of us facing the fireplace in front.

 

Frightening each other with ghost stories, we kept waiting for the womanly spirit loudly imagining the cold fireplace inside our room to suddenly catch fire like that by Simon’s ghost, stone chimneys to release charcoal smokes and so on. But alas, nothing happened like that – neither it was Mr. Brown’s bungalow not there was anyone like Simon.

 

As we were chitchatting, my husband sporadically kept brushing my right feet with his toes – though I did not like the feeling, I ignored for the first few times. But as he kept repeating it with increasing frequency and pressure, I expressed my dislike and asked him to stop. My left leg was slightly in touch with his body so when I said, “Stop that please”, he did not react much but moved away a bit. But again in sometime when he repeated it, I was little annoyed this time. Expressing my irritation I clearly said, “Stop it, I said naa”. With a strange voice he said, “What? I am not doing anything.” Then I gently tapped him with my right feet and said, “Isn’t that you?” The touch was not like a normal warm blooded human body. It was too soft and uncharacteristically cold. He said, yes thinking that I was referring to my left feet casually touching his leg. I still could not believe what was waiting for us next. I tapped back harder with my right feet and raised my voice with sheer surprise, “Is this really you?” Now, my husband too could sense the gravity of the situation and at once removed the blanket clung over our body. Believe me, there was nothing touching my right feet. My husband’s toes were too far to touch my right side of the body. Hardly could they brush my left side. Just then the power came.

 

Room lights on, steams slowly coming out of the heater blades, TV’s red LED gleaming again and the garden too was brightened by the lamps. A feminine shadowy escape through the pines did not miss my sight. A weird smell inside the room forced us to open the windows in the prevailing chilliness. Shortly after, an ear piercing dinner call brought us back to normality.

 

The in-house restaurant was on ground floor. We chose the same table where we had taken our lunch in the morning. For supper I had ordered his favourites – chicken broth, chow-chow and chili chicken. The same waiter served the food but unlike lunch we kept absolutely mum, absentmindedly playing with the forks. The steaming yummy food was slowly getting cold. We did not realize that the old cook was observing our unusual silence from the kitchen. There was another family who were also having their dinner. After they left, the old man politely asked me, “Did she scare you my lady?” Together, we were stunned at his query. Is the haunted tag of Morgan House really true? The timeworn lips narrated us the story behind creepy haunts of the mansion.

 

Chow Chow at dinner

 

Before her marriage, Lady Morgan was a shrewd trader owning acres of indigo plantation in the Dooars region. On a 1927’s winter she got hitched to a wealthy jute merchant named Mr. George Morgan and to commemorate their wedding, the couple had built this luxurious bungalow in British colonial style. The scenic view of the mountains from her room overlooking the green splash was mesmerizing – a perfect abode for newly wedded couples. The lady was very fond of ivy and thus her man specially arranged to import the seeds from London and decorated the entire mansion with freshly bloomed ivy and wisterias.

 

Till 1938, it remained their midsummer retreat where the couple celebrated private parties. Major half of the year they used to spend downhill amidst their indigo and jute plantations, but during scorching summers, the Morgan couple relished the dreamy surroundings at this lavish hideaway.

 

One such night Mr. Morgan was so over drunk that his partying associates exploited the opportunity. They assailed Lady Morgan against her wish in presence of the drunken lord. Next morning when Mr. Morgan realized the severity of damage, he responded very unpredictably to the situation. Surprising everyone, he started abusing the lady insanely blaming to have unlawful desire towards his male acquaintances. In no time, very uncharacteristically, he disowned Lady Morgan as his mistress and started treating her as his kept. With every passing day thereon, life started decaying their marital bond. A sudden change in Mr. Morgan’s attitude towards his wife decayed the remaining feelings.

 

Lady Morgan was left helpless with the overnight change in her man, inhumanely torturing every night. Lady Morgan’s painful screams could often be heard by local villagers but none had the guts to stand against the affluent baron. Only the old warden who used to take care of the mansion during their absence came for her rescue. He was genuinely affectionate to Lady Morgan. The unforeseen fissure in the couple’s conjugal life broadened the way to Hell.

 

Suddenly in the year of 1941, on a winter morning Lady Morgan was found brutally choked in her bedroom and Mr. Morgan went missing, leaving no legal heir. From the prevailing condition of the dead body it seemed that before losing her breath, there had been immense struggle between the assassin and victim. Scratches all over her body were also clearly visible.

 

It was the same old caretaker who discovered Lady Morgan’s corpse and reportedly said that he neither met the couple the previous night nor did they arrive at the daybreak. Ambiguities evolved then from where suddenly her dead body came and it remained a mystery forever. Moreover, no one had seen Mr. Morgan after his strange disappearance, nor was his body discovered ever. Thus gradually with time the mansion earned its ‘haunted’ label. People began spreading gossips that unable to bear her pains, the old warden must have killed the lady to free her from the devil’s clutch. Posthumously it was Lady Morgan’s displeased spirit in the house who must have engulfed her vicious husband’s body.

 

As per our cook, whosoever stays in the room (No 103 as per modern indexing), she knocks them seeking for help and let the world know about her sad story. Boarders often misunderstand that as a scary activity and spread the ghost stories about Morgan House.

 

Old cook’s abnormally luminous eyes while narrating Lady Morgan’s uncanny demise left us with an equally uncanny feeling. Was he trying to convince us that Lady Morgan’s spirit is innocent? That she needs our help and does not want to scare us? That the old caretaker wasn’t a slayer rather he relieved the poor lady from extreme agony?

 

Strangely, given a thought, we did not remember seeing the old cook throughout the day anywhere in the campus, neither at restaurant. An icy chill ran down our spine imagining a ghost in him. Enough dose of adventure had already sunk in. We preferred to finish our dinner fast and retire for the night.

Bara Kothi – The Oldest Haunted Edifice of Kolkata

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

Looking at the present conditions of the surroundings, who could imagine there stands a 1st century BC obliterated building belonging to the Sunga-Kusana period? Bored of spending our weekends in a typical metro lifestyle, this time we looked out for a vintage touch. Thanks to sources on internet, we discovered an intriguing place which has no authentic version of its original owner at a stone’s throw distance from Kolkata airport – the ‘Clive House’ of South Dum Dum, also referred as ‘Dumdum House’ at times.

 

Glimpse of Clive House 

 

 

91, Rastraguru Avenue is the postal address of the site and is popularly identified as ‘Clive House’ bus stop near ILS Hospital. Located at just 6 kilometres from Netaji Subhas International Airport along Jessore road, this ancient construction popped like a hidden wonder for wanderlusts like us. We had been to the locality several times earlier but could never expect to encounter a mound from Before Christ epoch right at the heart of Nagerbazar market.

 

Lower Ground in front of the Obliterated House

 

Soon after crossing the crowded junction, we took a sharp left when GPS location finder declared, “You have arrived.” It was quarter past three on a summer afternoon – as expected, there was not even a single person to ask for help. Standing amidst a concrete wilderness full of overgrown high rises and colourful apartments, a splash of private playground was the only breather around where our vision could stretch beyond a yard. Utterly frustrated, I was literally about to abuse GPS for the wrong marking right when one of us spotted a worn-out turret behind the ground. It definitely had a century old looks but reaching there was an exploration.

 

Thin Approach Road

 

Danger notice in front of the building

 

Parking our car near the football ground, we dared a gutsy stride through the thin brick lane along the ground’s barbed perimeter wall. You won’t believe, after taking say fifty odd steps from the motorway, we discovered a whole building – there were two storeys full of deep-rooted shrubs hanging from the roof and adjoining walls. A blue board revealed that the structure is an identified archaeological site of ASI.

 

Dilapidated southern entrance

 

Way though the peripheral slum

 

We were yet to find out the main entrance of the building. The exterior appearance did not look very reliable to breach the bambooed demarcations. Taking a few steps further, we reached almost the backside of the mansion depicting a renovated entrance from the northern side. Geographical directions are not important here, but history says Robert Clive was very particular about erecting prominent southern entry gates in all his residences. If this house belonged to him, we thought then there must be a lavish entrance in the opposite side. That instigated us to take a round of the rectangular edifice.

 

Semi-circular stairway at the northern entry

 

While walking down the four sides, history beckoned us to an unknown bliss – giant wooden windows that lost their grandeur over time, a lavish balcony in the second floor, semi-circular flight of steps, an extended portico, pillared hallways with fallen roofs, arched staircases, crumbled ceilings, remnants of overhanging lanterns, broken coloured glasses and many antique assets in ruins; perhaps only appreciated by the resident pigeons of urban era.

 

Present condition of the interiors

 

External renovation work stalled

 

Refugee nuisance along the boundary of a ‘protected’ monument

 

The periphery of the mansion is dwelled by a slum of refugee families who migrated to this side of the city during partition of Bengal. Their clumsy lifestyle inside such a heritage house was highly degrading the historical value of the building, posing a nuisance for the cleanliness of the site as well. We did not take the risk of stepping into the core of the building. Clicking a few snaps from the boundary, as we headed our way back, met an octogenarian from the same slum who narrated us the various folklores about ‘Clive House’ – adding the perfect touch to our vintage hunt.

 

Glimpses of Bara Kothi (Clive House)

 

Way back in the 17th century, there used to be a single-storey gold decked harem of Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. During the Nawabi regime, it was popularly known as ‘Bara Kothi’ (Grand Brothel). Right beside it was a gardened lake where white lotus bloomed round the year. The old Nawab was very fond of it and thus lovingly called it ‘Moti Jheel’, a namesake of his grand lakeside palace in Murshidabad. The premises was built on an elevated land and thus often referred by the Nawabs as ‘Dumdama’ which in Farsi (Persian) means ‘artificially raised mound’.

 

 

Ever since Robert Clive visited Calcutta, he always had greedy eyes on this lavish abode of the Nawabs. It is said, when the British marched towards Siraj’s camps in 1757, Clive had already ordered colonial kinsmen to reconstruct the building as per his newly married wife’s architectural fascinations and strictly instructed to complete the renovation before his homecoming. Eventually after he won the Battle of Plassey against Siraj-ud-Daullah, it was occupied by the British and renamed to ‘Clive House’ in honour of Lady Clive.

 

 

Now it is definitely a million-dollar question, how demonically overnight, an all-new floor bigger than the original with expatriate decorations could be completed. Some people even say that the original building of the Nawabs was demolished, looted and an artificial hillock was created piling up the debris in the middle of the lake dividing into two landscaped gardens on either side of the new construction. The one at the northern side was referred as High Ground (as it was slightly elevated than the other) while the one in front (southern side) as Low Ground.

 

 

This is what is found in the pages of history, but the haunting past of the mansion predates way beyond that. Even before the Nawabs, the site belonged to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who used to secretly hide their wealth and fire arms here in an underground chamber put up with extreme defence. That was the underlying reason of the differential architectural pattern of the two storeys, unusually thick walls of ground floor and low ceiling height of the upper level. The Europeans strictly prevented any aboriginal residential clusters to grow nearby but people staying at a distance from the castle often used to hear heavy sounds of underground canon testing (without realizing the source though). They thought it to be a haunting sound originating beneath the ground, thus referring the building as ‘Dam Dama’ which in colloquial language denotes heavy sound) and eventually got renamed to present day’s Dum Dum. There is an ordnance factory even today near ‘Clive House’, not sure if that too has its origin deep-rooted to the history of the ruins.

 

 

 

Another school of thought says the land actually belongs to a several millennium old civilization originating back to Sunga-Kusana time when the area used to be a royal courtyard. Ganges being nearby fostered civic developments of a wealthy and bourgeon merchant community conducive to an early urban settlement. With time as the river changed its course, the residents also slowly deserted the place migrating towards the south. Centuries later when Portuguese and Dutch merchants camped here, the ancient brick walls were overgrown by a thick layer of green grass – looking alike a mound from a distance. Later when they discovered hidden treasure inside the earthly cover, the foreigners erected a robust dome like a warehouse with thick walls (four to eight feet) and a moat around it, secretly continuing with their treasure hunt beneath the ground. Restricted public entry prevented trespassing which made their search easier.

 

 

Antique punch marked coins, seals with Nagari script inscriptions like ‘Samapasasya’ (meaning ‘belonging to Samapasa’, a language commonly used during 8th century AD in this belt of the country), exquisite terracotta plaques, bone jewellery, beads, semiprecious stones (like Lapis Lazuli, Jasper, Agate etc) raw crystals, pottery, cast copper and iron figurines, sculptures (including stylishly fabricated blackware, greyware and redware prevalent in 2nd century BC), a covert surface built of primeval lime and brick mortar stretching across an entire trench, a sunken fireplace surrounded by innumerable tortoise shells, fish scales and other artefacts excavated from the northern side of the property in recent years, indicate the feasibility of such a local hearsay.

 

 

Whatever be the obscure origin of the house, one thing we understood that it has undergone several rounds of hand changes – the latest of which is also more than 250 years old and still voicing its royal existence. This historic ‘Clive House’ was Lady Clive’s first city residence after she travelled to Calcutta all the way from London with her newly wedded husband Lt. Colonel Robert Clive. All other buildings named after Clive was in the honour of Mr. Clive and this perhaps is the only one named after his lady. Sources say Robert Clive used this residential complex as his seat of governorship for three years from 1756 to 1760 and right here the historic treaty between Mir Jafar and British was signed. Lady Clive loved the scenic gardens from her second floor balcony and often enjoyed kitty parties with her European acquaintances. The locality was always very important from a city life perspective and thus country’s one of the oldest airports was built here in 1924 and continues to be the largest air traffic hub of eastern India.

 

 

With time, the southern entry of the building has fallen down and restoration of the same could not be made possible. Though, the northern entrance has been recently renovated, but due to the risky condition of the ceiling, public entry is now prohibited. The same is also displayed with a notice from the authorities, blocking the entrance with bamboos. Though in skeletons, rightly claimed by the timeworn man, it’s ought to be the oldest edifice of Kolkata still surviving the ravages of time as a silent spectator of the glorious past of our country.

 

Celestial Holi Celebrations with Mt. Kanchenjunga from ‘Dinajpur House’

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

This Holi, the festival of colours, we planned our celebrations little differently. We booked a night stay at the century old heritage bungalow of the Dinajpur Kings to treat our eyes with the colourful Holi celebrations of the rising Sun and majestic Mt. Kanchenjunga. Since my childhood, I remember my grandma’s description of the mesmerizing views of the peaks on a full moon night. What could have been a better time to witness the celestial colour plays in the morning and gorgeous views of the entire range on a full moon night?

 

 

‘Dinajpur House’ is located on Ringkingpong Road, at a beautiful hill top near Kalimpong. Perched at an altitude of 4100 feet above sea level, it is around 80 kilometres (three hours’ drive) from the Bagdogra airport. It was not my first visit to Kalimpong though, but yes the first stay at the vintage bungalow for sure.

 

We boarded a local taxi from airport after loads of bargains and filthy negotiation with the prepaid brokers. Honestly speaking, where so many foreigners visit round the year, the transport authorities must work towards strengthening the governance, in interest of the tourists.

 

View of Teesta River from Coronation Bridge

 

We continued on NH10 for major part of our journey, crossing a rail bridge near Sevoke. A chilly wind pierced our skin as we kept soaring up the hills towards Ringkingpong. We avoided the overcrowded downtown area by taking the Kalimpong Bypass route. Fortunately, the driver knew the roads well and we faced no issues reaching our hotel. We had a prior reservation at the ‘Dinajpur House’. Fresh gleams of moonlight had totally flooded the place by the time we reached the place.

 

Beautifully decorated entrance of ‘Dinajpur House’

 

The hotel entrance was beautifully lit and decorated with flowering plants to add a festive touch. Our check-in was hassle free. We were given a garden view room at the third floor. The antique woodworks of the hotel lobby and reception area were noteworthy. However, the room quality and cleanliness must be improved compared to the tariff.

(No tea coffee kits were provided, wall to wall carpets were not available, no slippers in room, toiletries provided were of very ordinary quality, bathroom was very clumsy, drinking water was not purified and so on. These are some basic amenities which any boarder would expect from a star hotel.)

 

Keeping aside the hotel amenities, the building has a very attractive fact attached to its existence. Centuries ago, ‘Dinajpur House’ was inhabited by the Maharaja of Dinajpur as his summer retreat. It is strategically positioned around a kilometre above the Kalimpong town, facing north-east, with a panoramic view of the landscape from the main podium. It still belongs to the Dinajpur royal estate; however a portion of it has been recently renovated and leased out to the luxurious Park Hotel group for tourist accommodation.

 

I would like to highlight an important point here – location of the hotel is splendid only for tourists who want to avoid the crowded Kalimpong market area, otherwise one might feel very isolated being here. That also implies there was not a single shop in and around the hotel within a kilometre’s range. Since we were in an utterly relaxing mood, we just loved the seclusion.

 

It was the eve of Dol Purnima (full moon night before Holi) and the prevailing weather was just complementing the cosmic positions of the celestial bodies. The outside temperature was little below ten degrees with a frosty breeze blowing at night. Being there at this time of the year, a bonfire was arranged by the hotel staff and we were warmly invited to attend it while completing our check-in formalities.

 

Bonfire at ‘Dinajpur House’

 

We quickly freshened up as we had midnight plans to observe the much awaited view of the snow-caps on a moonlit night. The beautiful aroma of hot Darjeeling tea refreshed our weariness in a jiffy. And we decided to take a walk within the hotel premises.

 

Antique fireplace and other vintage items at ‘Dinajpur House’

 

The heritage aspect of the hotel was the most attractive part of our stay and it was quite evident from the well maintained trophy room and outhouse turned to bar. There were wonderful antique collections of furniture, utensils, grandpa’s clock, a Victorian wall clock, a magnificent fireplace, stuffed animals etc to add up to our grand experience. From one of the hotel boys we came to know that the building has been often portrayed in old and new Bengali films including a recent release.

 

Bonfire had already started by the time we came back to the reception area. We planned to have our dinner at the adjoining restaurant. Food taste was good and of sufficient quantity but they did not have water purifiers at all. Only option was bottled mineral waters being sold at elevated prices. They serve natural spring waters without being cautioned. People planning to stay with kids, beware.

 

The receptionist told us that on a cloudless night, Mt. Kanchenjunga peaks are best visible from its top floor observatory (fourth floor) and the ornate garden adjoining reception area. But we must wake up early to experience the best view, say around 1am in the morning. It would be our first midnight view of the Kanchenjunga range and so we were extremely excited.

 

Midnight View of Kanchenjunga Range on Dol Purnima (full moon night before Holi) 

 

Alarm echoed sharp at 1am and we dragged our tired bodies to the top floor observatory. It was dark otherwise, except a glowing snowline at a stone throwing distance. Couldn’t believe our own eyes – it was absolutely cloudless that night and we could clearly see all the peaks of the entire Kanchenjunga range – right from Mr. Kumbhakarna at extreme left to Mt. Pandim and the main Mt. Kanchenjunga peaks at the centre. Oh, what a lifetime view it was! Our midnight celebrations were revelled with a toast.

 

Rising Sun – as viewed from top floor observatory of ‘Dinajpur House’

 

Next wait was for another three and half hours – the fire plays of rising sun kissing the snow peaks with saffron and silver colours. Alarm buzzed sharp at 5.30am. Morning sun’s first glows started appearing and slowly the blue outlines became visible. It was right at 6.15am when the Mt. Kanchenjunga main peaks became feebly visible.

 

By 6.30am, the outline of the entire Kanchenjunga range was visible on our left while the sun rose from our right. The view of the changing colours on the white snow was not just great, but splendid. It seemed like as if Lord Krishna took the form of the Sun, to play Holi with his beloved Radha in a white dress, waiting to be drenched.

 

Colour plays of Sun and Kanchenjunga on Holi morning – Saffron – Yellow – Blue – Silver – White

 

 

 

We also went to the garden to experience the view and it was worth the efforts. Nevertheless, most of the hotel rooms did not face the snow clads.

 

(From left) Kumbhakarna, Ratong, Kabru S, Kabru N, Talung _ Kanchendzonga peaks

 

Mt. Kanchendzonga Central peak

 

Mt. Kabru South peak

 

Mt. Pandim peak

 

This time, our festive revelries were truly colourful, cheered up by a lifetime stay at the heritage hotel. We thoroughly enjoyed the multi-coloured views of the Kanchenjunga range, ultimate solitude, lovely bonfire, tasty food, aromatic Darjeeling tea and the prevailing chilling climate – exactly what we had planned as part our Holi celebrations.

The Imperial Gateways of Bengal Sultanate at Gour

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

Gour of Malda district was once the capital of ancient Bengal, from early 5th century till 16th century AD, being ruled by multiple influential kingdoms starting from Mauryas to Guptas, Pals, Sens, Mughals and Afghans. The place has also significant mentions in Ramayana which says it was originally discovered by Laxman who named it as Lakhnauti. But another school of thought says, the city was named Lakhnauti in the name of Lakshman Sen, the then ruler of ancient Bengal. Later it was renamed to Gour (evolved from the Bengali word ‘gur’ meaning molasses) by the Muslims for which the city is famous even today.

 

 

Whatever be the etymology of the place, every corner of it speaks of its golden past. Most of the city stands in ruins now. However, remnants of its lost grandeur have been preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India and any kind of picnic is strictly prohibited inside the historic monuments and adjoining premises.

 

Unfortunately, there are no luxury accommodations yet. Other than a newly opened 3-star private resort, there is only a budget quality Government lodge for tourist accommodation. Needless to say, Gour needs more focus from our Government for administrative glorification of the lost capital so that it is frequented by foreign visitors in the days to come.

 

Way to Malda by Road

 

Gour is well connected by rail and road. We love long drives and thus preferred to self-drive to Malda by road. From Kolkata airport it is little less than 330 kilometres. There are three different routes to reach Gour, we took the one via SH7 from Barddhaman till Moregram and then NH34 till Gour. Road conditions are moderately good, with frequent bidirectional traffic in one-way lanes. Hence speed loving highway freaks may not enjoy the drive much. Also there are irregular patches in certain parts of the road. Overall in the entire stretch, there are three places where road and traffic conditions are really bad – Bardhhaman station road, junction near Nalhati in SH7 and near Farakka Barrage. It took us around 9 hours to reach Gour, out of which 1.5 hours were wasted in simply crossing the Farakka Bridge. Due to renovation work in progress, the bridge was open on one side only, allowing limited traffic in batches.

 

Way to Gour from Farakka

 

The city of Gour acted as the capital of all the ruling dynasties and was built very differently than other cities of its time. It was highly walled (approx 22 yards in height) on all sides with one lavish entry gate in three geographical directions. The gates served as royal entrances to the inner citadel comprising of an imperial palace, a gigantic prison, huge lakes, fruit orchards, suburbs, servant quarters, tombs, mausoleums, monuments and innumerable buildings of religious importance (temples converted to mosques with the change in hands).

 

The four gates in three directions are named differently, indicating their individual significance – Daakhil Darwaza (North), Kotwali Darwaza (South), Gumti Darwaza (East) and Lukochuri Darwaza (East). There are no gates in the western side as River Ganga used to flow near the castle of Gour in that era. But with centuries of time, the river has changed its course and in present day it is quite far away from the fort.

 

Dakhil Darwaza

 

The ‘Dakhil Darwaza’ served as the main entrance to the regal ramparts of Gour through which the Sultans used to enter the palace. The biggest northern gateway of the fort, this imperial gateway was built by Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah which was further strengthened by Sultan Barbak Shah in the year of 1459 and later upgraded by Sultan Alauddin Husain Shah. Since then, it was mostly restricted for the private movements of royal family. Canons were fired every time when they entered through this gate which earned its colloquial name ‘Salami Darwaza’.

 

Daakhil Darwaza Entry

 

Daakhil Darwaza Entry Portico

 

Daakhil Darwaza terracotta works

 

Made of burnt red bricks, the beautiful terracotta carvings on the porch are impressive which bear a testimony to the beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Islamic architectures. Photography here is a delight. The piers between the porticos are made of black granite stone which strongly support the overhanging arches. There are four towers at the corners comprising of twelve-sided five-storeyed curvilinear domes. Inside the gateway there are couple of guardsman rooms which are deserted now. The only sound which could be heard is that of the bats. Towards the southeast corner of the gate, a 22 yards high wall encloses the ruins of Sultan’s royal palace.

 

Kotwali Darwaza (Indo-Bangladesh border)

 

‘Kotwali Darwaza’ was the primary southern gateway of the castle, around 8 kilometres away from ‘Dakhil Darwaza’. It was built just before the death of Allauddin Khilji in 1235 AD. A gigantic brick laden structure, it served as the main city entrance for the common people. Being always guarded by the ‘Kotwal’ (meaning Police Chief in Persian language), it was named so. Now in complete ruins, it has been overgrown by grass and shrubs all over. Only the peripheral convex shaped towers are partially visible. However, the massiveness of the gateway depicts the level of protection it provided to the castle.

 

Climb on top of Kotwali Darwaza

 

Presently it forms the Indo-Bangladesh border and is stringently monitored by our Border Security Force (BSF) from Indian side and Bangladesh’s Simanta Raksha Bahini (SRB) on the other. Any kind of photography of the international border and the historic gate is strictly prohibited. Upon requesting the BSF Chief, they allowed us to climb up to the top of the ‘Kotwali Gate’ through a natural slope. We could not stop taking the risk to try our ascent up the ruined gate. The view from top was a lifetime treasure, feeling like a Sultan indeed. On our right was Bangladesh’s Nawabganj district while on left was India’s Mahidpur (Malda district). Wow!

 

Gumti Darwaza

 

The ‘Gumti Darwaza’ was a single domed, relatively smaller gate at the eastern side of the fort. It comprised of enamelled bricks, constructed later during the Afghan rule in 1512 AD by Sultan Allauddin Hussain Shah. Originally it served as the entrance to the mausoleum of Chamkan, later being opened for generic use. It is believed that kilos of pure gold brought form Middle East were used to decorate this gate, but right now only remnants of the glazed bricks could be seen. The gate is now closed for public. It can only be witnessed from outside.

 

Lukochuri Darwaza

 

‘Lukochuri Darwaza’ was the grandest of all the internal gateways used by the Mughals for royal entertainment purposes. With multiple confusing chambers, as the name suggests, this gate was used by the Sultan for fun plays like hide-and-seek with his Begums. However during the Afghani rule, it was restricted to a private entrance into the inner ramparts of the citadel. But later in 1655 AD, after getting renovated by Sultan Shah Shuja, son of Emperor Shah Jahan, it was converted to a ‘Nuqqarkhana’ (meaning ‘Drummer’s Chamber’ in English). Trumpets and drums were beaten during the Emperor’s entry into and exit from the citadel.

 

This three-storeyed majestic gateway, made of burnt red bricks, is rectangular in shape; flanked by arched doors in the centre and all four sides. Built in authentic Mughal architectural style, this gate stands as one of the most prominent monuments of Gour.

 

 

Other than these four gateways, there were two more namely ‘Chand Darwaza’ and ‘Nim Darwaza’, but because of their fragile constructions they do not exist anymore. Thanks to the enormous efforts taken by ASI, the remnants of the old capital are being preserved. But we need more support from the authorities to attract increasing tourists round the year. They may start training local guides to articulate the blood warming stories of the rulers of Gour, publish attractive brochures and booklets about the rich history of the place, design light-and-sound programs at the important monuments and so on.

 

We, as proud Bengalis, also must join hands to develop a sustainable promotional plan for Gour. Sad to say, it did not get the deserved focus from its own people. Hardly any outsiders visit the place today compared to the footfalls of Murshidabad and Bishnupur. Loads of secrets lie hidden inside the century old terracotta bricks of Gour. Let us take some conscious efforts to open the prosperous treasure to the entire world.

Gour & Pandua – The Land of Terracotta Mosques

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

By hearing the word ‘terracotta’ (burnt clay of brick red colour), the first thought that comes to our mind is ancient Hindu temples of Bishnupur. But I was really amazed to discover an array of antique terracotta mosques at the lost capitals of Gour and Pandua in Malda district of West Bengal. It was a planned fort city belonging to the medieval period. Few monuments including terracotta mosques, which have passed the ravages of time, stand in bones and skeletons today; pleading for attention from the modern world. Recently, a song from the Tollywood hit ‘Bojhena Se Bojhena’ was shot at different corners of Gour and Pandua, depicting the glorious past of the ruined capitals.

 

Glimpse of Terracotta Artworks on Gour Mosques

 

Malda can be easily reached by rail or road; rail is preferred but we are long drive freaks as you know; and thus voyaged again on an audacious road drive from Kolkata via Farakka.

 

There are different schools of thought about the monuments of Gour and Pandua. Some say they were built by the early Hindu kings which gained ultimate prominence in 7th century AD during the reign of King Shashanka. Later when transferred to the hands of Buddhist patrons of Pals and Sens, they flourished the kingdom from 8th to 12th century AD. But when the Islamic dynasties took control over the fort in 13th century, the temples were all converted to mausoleums which seem to be the source of exquisite terracotta artworks of Gour and Pandua mosques.

 

Historians have mentioned about twelve mosques inside the citadel of Gour and couple of more at Pandua, the Afghan capital. But as of today, only seven have been renovated and opened to public by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). These are – Boro Sona Masjid, Qadam Rasool Masjid, Chika Masjid, Lottan Masjid, Gunmantam Masjid, Tantipara Masjid and Chamkati Masjid. Apart from these, there are Adina Masjid and Choto Sona Masjid at Pandua, around 16 kilometres from Gour.

 

All the mosque premises are beautifully decorated with flowering plants by ASI. However, any kind of picnic is strictly prohibited within the campuses. There is no formal parking facility at any of the monuments, but ample amateur parking space is available outside the entrances.

 

Boro Sona Masjid (Great Golden Mosque)

 

The Boro Sona Masjid (Great Golden Mosque) is the most remarkable of all the monuments of Gour, the largest of its type, if not in the entire state. It earned its name due to the gilded gold ornamentations on its domes and cornices. The arcaded aisle of the long corridor is the grandest among its other features. The brick walls and stone pillars stand straight; however, none of the gold ornate carvings exist today. But the Indo-Arabic style of architecture makes it a matchless destination for tourists.

 

Baro Duari Masjid

 

The erection of the mosque was started by Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah and was completed in 1526 AD by his son Sultan Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah. It is a rectangular edifice comprising of a colossal prayer hall and twelve doorways, out of which only one is closed and rest all are open. Hence many call the mosque as Baro Duari Masjid (Twelve Gated Mosque).

 

Muazzin’s podium

 

There are three facades of the edifice, couple of which are in ruins, except one in the east which stands proudly in its original glory even today. In the south-east, there is a broken podium, which was perhaps used by the Muazzin for calling the devotees before the commencement of the holy prayer. And in the north, the remains of a ladies prayer gallery could be seen. Spending an hour at the mosque is a wonderful experience.

 

Qadam Rasool Masjid

 

 

A few yards from the Baro Sona Mosque stands the Qadam Rasool Masjid, built in 1531 AD by Sultan Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah. From the name itself it can be made out that this mosque houses the footprint (meaning ‘Qadam’ in Arabic) of Hazrat Muhammad (meaning ‘Rasool’ in Arabic). As per Islamic belief, whenever Prophet stepped on a holy stone, it bore a permanent impression.

 

Exquisite terracotta ornamentation on the inner mosque wall

 

In Qadam Rasool Mosque, His right footprint is enshrined on a white marble inside a single domed building with arched balconies surrounding it. On the four corners there are four stone towers made of black marble. One can also find the holy Arabic inscriptions on the eastern wall of the mosque. However, the resting shed in front of it is now in complete ravages, except a few arched facades. The most striking feature of this mosque is the exquisite terracotta artwork on its outer walls, commonly found in Hindu temples of the same era, which makes it one of the most salient monuments of Gour.

 

Holy Arabic inscriptions

 

 

Tomb of Fateh Ali Khan

 

The tomb of Dilawar Khan’s son Fateh Ali Khan, sent by Aurangzeb to kill Peer Shah Niamatullah of Gour (who was apprehended to instigate Sultan Shuja against the Emperor), is housed inside the mosque. Surprisingly, after reaching the fort Fateh Khan died out of vomiting blood and his tomb is constructed in a typical Hindu temple style (‘aat chala’) within the building. No records of the architect are documented though. Apart from Fateh Khan’s mausoleum, there are other open tombs too inside the premises. Any kind of videography is strictly prohibited inside the Qadam Rasool Masjid.

 

Chamkan Masjid (Bat Mosque)

 

The next remarkable religious monument of Gour is the Chamkan Masjid (Bat Mosque); located hardly a few steps ahead of Qadam Rasool. The name has a very unique origin. The mosque is colloquially termed as Chika alias Chamkan Masjid because it was swamped with huge number of bats (‘Chika’ in Arabic, or ‘Chamchika’ in Bengali) in past. It is a single-domed building, but now almost in ruins except the exterior walls and the backside stone pillars. The prayer hall gates are also closed for public due to the nuisance of bats.

 

Rear side of Chika Masjid

 

Though named as a mosque, it was originally a Hindu temple which is also evident from its architectural pattern and stone carvings. Impression of Hindu Gods on the stone pillars and lintels are still sparsely visible. Was taken over by the Mughals in the year 1450 AD, replacing the original stone works with enamelled bricks, typical of Islamic style. A few years later, during the reign of Sultan Hussain Shah, it was used as a royal prison house from 1493-1519 AD. After his death, it was finally converted to a mausoleum.

 

Lottan Masjid

 

Our next stopover was at Lottan Masjid, a double domed structure, located on the Mahidpur highway heading towards the Indo-Bangladesh international border. The road was earlier known as King’s way or Governor’s road, but now renamed to Mahidpur highway where it ends in Indian side. Beyond it is the Nawabganj district of Bangladesh after crossing the international border. On way, we visited the vestiges of royal dock (‘Jahaj Ghata’), the palace of Hindu kings (‘Ballal Bati’) and their 22-yards high perimeter wall (locally famous as ‘Baish Gazi Dewal’).

 

Jahaj Ghata

 

Ballal Bati

 

Baish Gazi Dewal

 

Though named as a mosque now, but originally it was built by Sultan Yusuf Shah as a personal residence of his favourite dancer courtesan Lottan Bai. Historians say, the lady was an epitome of beauty and creativity. To ensure Lottan Bai’s dignity and also to honour her gorgeousness, the Sultan had built her this colourful mansion in 1475 AD, outside the inner fort of Gour.

 

Enamelled brick works on Lottan Masjid

 

The exterior walls were decorated with brightly painted bricks made of coloured glass powder (blue, red, white, green etc), only remnants of which could be witnessed now. It is a pity that the enamelled stones have vanished now, remaining only in bits and pieces on the outer walls. Doors are locked for public. A worn out tree in front of the entry gate is the only witness of the century old secrets hidden inside the royal edifice. The inner hall is surrounded by verandas on all sides with sloping roofs. And the entire building is located in the middle of a huge mango orchard, famous for Fajli mangoes even today. The gardens are beautifully maintained by ASI. Parking has to be done on the main road, outside the mosque.

 

Little ahead, inside the Muslim dwellings is the Gunmantam, another protected ASI monument of Gour. But due to traffic congestion caused by a local procession, we skipped Gunmantam, took a U-turn and proceeded towards Tantipara.

 

Tantipara Masjid (Weaver’s Mosque)

 

Tantipara Masjid (Weaver’s Mosque) is also located on the Mahidpur highway, on the opposite side of the road. In those days, Gour was famous for producing huge quantities of muslin and a heavy chunk of the population comprised of weavers.

 

 

Legends say, this mosque was built by the Sultans especially for these professionals (weavers). No ASI boards were found in front of the mosque, hence it is difficult to gauge the exact age of this building. Sadly, there are two tombs near the entrance but with no epitaphs. However the premises are well maintained by the authorities.

 

Unnamed tombs at Tantipara Masjid

 

This mosque is one of the most conspicuous of all the mosques in the area but with time it has lost its glamour. The octagonal interior domes have collapsed.

 

Collapsed octagonal interior domes

 

It is commonly believed that the mosque might have been purposely looted by the intruders as it was richly ornamented with gold works at cornices and turrets. The black stone pillars still stand strong as elegant as ever. The western side has massive prayer niches which were profusely decorated with precious stones and gilded gold in those days, but nothing exists today other than the half-fallen brick walls.

 

Garden side of Tantipara Masjid

 

Our final stopover was the Chamkati Masjid (Skin Cutter’s Mosque), also located on the Mahidpur highway within a mile from Gunmantam. It is one of the smallest mosques of Gour, hardly visited by any tourists. Once dilapidated, it has now been opened to public after restoration.

 

Chamkati Masjid (Skin Cutter’s Mosque)

 

The naming of the mosque associates with the skin-cutter class of Muslims. It is believed that this building was constructed in 1475 AD by Sultan Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah for the religious prayers of the ‘Chamkatti’ professionals. It comprises of a small dome and a three-way vaulted veranda in the east. The external walls were decorated with glazed tiles, only the ruins could be seen now. However, the beautiful terracotta reliefs have stood the weathering over centuries and can be well watched even today.

 

Terracotta designs on Chamkatti Masjid

 

With the sun setting in the west, our Gour trip ended with a bittersweet feeling. Sweet because of witnessing the awesomeness of the lost capital and capturing every bit of it through our lens. Bitter for lack of deserved attention and advertisement by the managing authorities to present the rich history of our ancient Bengal to the world at large. Hopefully, after reading this travel tale, many of you who love history and Bangla, would plan to make the twin heritage cities Gour and Pandua your next holiday destination.

Borgee Encounter at Itachuna Royal Palace

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

During my schooldays, I had read in history book that during early 18th century, eastern India was plundered by the ravaging Maratha warriors, prevalently known as the ‘Notorious Borgees’.  They were successful in creating such terror among the common masses that even mothers scolded innocent kids by their names, if troubled. Innumerable colloquial hymns were recited in those days; some of which passed the ordeal of time and are hummed even in modern times. An example of one of the most popular rhymes goes like this:-

“Khoka ghumolo, para jurolo

Borgee elo deshe

Bulbuli te dhaan kheyeche

Khajna debo kise?”

 

(If translated in English, the rhyme conveys a terrifying message – The entire village sleeps with the sleeping kid, when the scary Borgees arrive to loot them. The villagers feel threatened if birds eat away their paddies as there will not be any extra stock to give away to the burglars.)

 

History says, if any villager failed to pay agricultural tax to the Borgees, they would go to any extent of physical torture as penalty. By adopting different frightening techniques, the Borgees had robbed massive wealth from the villages of Bengal for over a century. One of such fragments of historical carnage stands even today at Itachuna – the royal palace of the ‘Kundan’ family belonging to the race of devastating Borgees.

 

Itachuna Royal Palace of the Borgees

 

Itachuna is a small village in the Hooghly Rural district of West Bengal, not very far from the madding crowd of Kolkata. It can be accessed equally by rail or road. We planned to go by road and return by local train. The royal palace is geographically located at a distance of approximately 70 kilometers from Kolkata. Driving through the Old Delhi Road (NH13) is the fastest route, irrespective of present road and traffic conditions. The only pain of this route is that even being a national highway, the road is under reconstruction between Dankuni till Bansberia. The frequent one way lanes allowing goods carriers are a known nuisance. Evening drive is riskier as the potholes are not noticeable properly at many places. Recently, heavy vehicles have been banned in this stretch which has reduced the peril to some extent.

 

Last anniversary, I had been there with my family for a night out. Nowadays, tourists are often invited to spend time to adore the stately beauty of the Itachuna Royal Palace. Hearing the Kundan epic sagas from our office canteen cook, who happened to be a resident of Itachuna village, we found the Borgee history to be captivating enough to plan a trip. From his narrations we could make out, the natives still have a mix of hatred and respect for the rulers due to extreme ancestral brutality and gradual empathetic metamorphosis of the Kundans with time. As per him, the best way to reach there is to board a local train from Howrah, get down at Khanyan (23rd railway station in the Barddhaman main line) and then take a hand-pulled rickshaw or trekker to the palace.

 

Royal Entrance of the Palace

 

 

View from inner courtyard

 

After having an early breakfast, five of us started our family night out to Itachuna Royal Palace, commonly known as ‘Borgee Danga’ by the locales. Though we travelled by a reserved outstation cab from Kolkata till Itachuna, in love of unknowns, we got down near Khanyan station and let the car go. After reaching the station we discovered that trekkers are not that common as a public vehicle. However, ample number of man-pulled van rickshaws (typical of Eastern India’s remote corners) was available to take us to the palace. It was hardly 2.5 kilometers from the station and it did not take us much time to reach as the internal road was quite decent for a rickshaw ride. On way we crossed the historical Itachuna Degree College and Itachuna Hospital which were founded by the later rulers who supported education and healthy wellbeing of the villagers.

 

Brick Red Structure of the main building

 

Before narrating our kingly stay at the palace, let me share the bloodcurdling history of the notable Kundan family residing in the said province. After the fall of the Mughals, Maratha warriors under the leadership of Bhaskar Pandit and Raghuji Bhonsle had invaded Bengal during 1750s. Regions along the Gangetic plains of Hooghly district were their initial place of stay. Shri Safallya Narayan Kundan was the founder who constructed this royal palace of Itachuna in the year 1766. They plundered enormous wealth from the Nawab and rich local zamindars in the name of ‘Chauth’ tax (popularly referred as ‘Khajna’ in Bengali). They also brutally tortured and indiscriminately assassinated the poor commoners who were unable to fulfill their hefty demands. As a result, the Maratha warriors earned their colloquial name ‘Borgee’ and their capital Itachuna as ‘Borgee Danga’.

 

Way to private residence of the palace

 

Kundans were one of those Maratha races who continued to stay in Itachuna even after the abolition of Borgee rule by the Government. However, with centuries, the Kundans got renamed to Kundus, whose successors still own the royal palace.

 

Soon after stepping inside the palace we realized, what a splendor it was! Constructed over acres of land, a massive imperial beauty indeed. Had to admit, the Kundans had a superb taste of style. There was a big iron gate at the entrance. Just as we walked in, a gigantic maroon building beckoned us. A U-shaped grassy lawn welcomed our tired dusty feet as we walked in; crossing that we could reach the building’s staircase.

 

Itachuna Royal Palace – A grand architecture

 

 

Behind it there was a grand temple dedicated to the Kundan’s traditional deity. Even today regular evening prayers are offered by the in-house priest. The building comprised of two long wings, architecture closely resembling the English alphabet ‘H’ – now referred as North and South towers, dividing across two sides from the central stairway.

 

Green U-shaped garden at the entrance

 

H-shaped outer palace

 

 Back side view of the palace from terrace

 

We climbed up the narrow dark staircases to land onto the wide corridor of the northern side of the first floor. Lively oil paintings of all the Kundan successors adored the long corridor. To add a majestic touch, a number of age-old musical instruments including bamboo chimes, wooden violin, tribal stringed instruments and many more were used to decorate the hallway. All bore a touch of imperial elegance.

 

Bamboo chime of the Borgees

 

Giant chessboard and wooden pawns

 

Ethnic wall clocks 

 

 

A little ahead, was the darbar hall of the king – a huge circular area, walls decorated with typical Borgee weapons – spectacular heavyweight metallic swords, air-guns, rifles, self-defensive arms, metal jackets and what not! Especial was the royal sword with the king’s name gorgeously engraved on the wooden handle.

 

A splash of imperial luxury

 

 

 

The most interesting of all was the naming convention followed for the rooms. They were not numbered, instead tagged after the names of the respective family members like ‘Thakuma’, ‘Boro Babu’, ‘Mejo Babu’, ‘Choto Babu’, ‘Ginni Maa’, ‘Boro Maa’, ‘Mejo Maa’, ‘Boro Boudi’, ‘Choto Boudi’, ‘Boro Pishi’, ‘Kaka Babu’, ‘Jethamashai’, ‘Bordi’ and so on. We were allotted two of the best rooms – ‘Thakuma’ (oldest queen) in first floor and ‘Choto Babu’ (youngest prince) on second floor. ‘Thakuma’s room was actually a suite, neatly decorated with a grand queen sized bed made of Mahogany wood and an antique dressing table. There was also a personal swing in front of the room to enjoy private leisure hours. ‘Choto Babu’s room was on the chile kotha (single room at the top of the terrace) which was a typical bachelor’s room with a big king sized wooden cot and antique table chairs.

 

A climb to ‘Choto Babu’ room on the chile kotha

 

Open terrace outside ‘Ginni Maa’ room

 

Peeping through ‘Boro Babu’ room

 

Wooden swing of royal era in front of ‘Boro Boudi’ room

 

Gardened terrace of North wing

 

Time was close to 6 pm. The caretaker lit up all the lanterns at the fall of the sun, just before the grand evening prayer.

 

Imperial lanterns of the palace

 

 

Dinner was served early by 8.30pm. Food was very fresh and tasty; the cook must be specially appreciated for serving all what we had ordered in such a traditional Bengali cuisine style – a heritage stay in every aspect. The most striking aspect of the dining hall was a century old menu card displayed on the northern wall. It was the wedding menu of Shafalla Narayan Kundan, comprising of 101 dishes starting from exclusive appetizers to exotic desserts. However, none of the royal delicacies are available to order at present.

 

Royal wedding menu of Shafalla Narayan Kundan

 

Ancient window of dining hall

 

Compared to a homestay (as they call it), the tariff was quite on the higher side, yet it was worth the experience offered. Check out was hassle free but arranging public transport from the palace to the Khanyan station was a huge mess. No pickup-drop facilities were offered by the authorities and the locality being totally rural; it was damn difficult for us to get a public transport. We had to literally walk half the way before meeting a fully packed trekker. The driver was kind enough to allow us to overload it externally. Three of us somehow managed to step onto the backstairs while my husband and I enjoyed the sideways. The flying experience added a special touch to the entire tour.

 

In a nutshell, the overall experience was quite different from our expectations. Not at all like any other homestay resorts we are commonly used to these days. It takes you back to the historical fiery days of Borgees through the vintage decorations and extravaganza. There are so many folklores on the ferocious Borgees. Getting a chance of spending a night at their palace, sleeping on their palonko (royal bed), having food in their wooden dining extravaganza, play chess the regal style – in totality, truly a breath taking lifetime experience.

 

A grand stay at Itachuna Royal Palace